My knowledge of British history doesn't go much further than the plot lines on "Downton Abbey," so all I know about the Victorian era is that it was a time of prosperity and peace or something for Great Britain.
On Friday night at The Tralf, the band Rasputina let me know that the era was also a time for dry wit, distortion pedals and Cheap Trick covers. Since its debut album in 1996 (they would say 1896), this devoutly original cello-rock outfit has been one of pop music's more peculiar denizens. Led by lead cellist, songwriter and singer Melora Creager, Rasputina has been a revolving door of supporting players (she's now backed by cellist Daniel DeJesus and drummer Dawn Miceli). But the aesthetic has stayed the same -- appropriate the sounds, fashions and cultural reference points of the Victorian era, and mash them up with the muddy fuzz-box stomp of goth and alternative rock.
Introducing each song with hilarious mock seriousness, Creager made explicit points about the nontraditional subject matter of her songs, from crazy weather and prehistoric giants to Gloria Swanson and Emily Dickinson.
"Here's our physics song," the bandleader deadpanned at one point, decked out like her fellow musicians in full Victorian garb. "Every band has one. We're just trying to fit in."
That song was "Secret Letter," a gothic pop nugget that was one of the show's highlights. Featuring intricate cello interplay between Creager and DeJesus, along with impressive three-part harmonies to go with all the physics-as-romantic-impulse metaphors, it showed just how sublime a Rasputina song can be.
I wasn't as big a fan of the more riff-based rock material, if only because the distorted cello parts came off brash and tinny, without the benefit of counterbalance. Songs like "High On Life" and the opening "Trenchmouth" were certainly full of energy, but they really underlined the need for a bass player on stage. The exception to the rule was a spot-on rendition of "I Want You To Want Me," where Creager's bursts of distortion provided just the right amount of grit to a glorious power-pop melody.
At its best, the trio delivered some truly compelling music on this night, sounding as if a Brahms concerto, a Tom Waits lyric sheet and some Nirvana tablature were fused together after a bout of extreme corseting.
But that wasn't all the originality we had the pleasure of encountering. Opening act Daniel Knox delighted and confused the audience with a spirited, slightly twisted set of solo piano ditties. An heir apparent to Randy Newman if I've ever seen one, Knox used his bouncing, Tin Pan Alley compositions to sing about Armageddon, quote William Blake, and use the line "hopes and dreams will end up killing you" directly after a kazoo solo.
Deeply sarcastic and obviously talented, a dead ringer for Zach Galifianakis with a tenor that quavers like Yoko Ono, Knox had at least one thing in common with the headliner -- you don't come across an artist like this every day.